With this LP, our former Prince turns in his most effortlessly eclectic set since 1987's Sign o' the Times. As his fourth album since rock's most quixotic auteur baptized himself with a name only dolphins and extraterrestrials can pronounce, The Gold Experience is surprisingly retro in sound and attitude. Longtime fans will recognize signature riffs from Purple Rain, 1999 and Controversy, as well as customized appropriations from glitter rock, the Ohio Players, art rock and the kind of quirky narrative poems Prince perfected upon the release of Graffti Bridge.
Guiding the listener from track to track is the multilingual chatter of a feminine cyborg first deployed on the ex-Prince's interactive CD-ROM from last year. One of her first declarations — in Spanish — is that Prince has "died" so that the New Power Generation may live. But who are the NPG, really? Although The Gold Experience enjoys the services of some very tight, skillful musicians (not the least of whom are the folks who compose the horn section from the old Paisley Park act Madhouse), all you really hear is the heart, soul and mind of our once and future Prince.
In case you're wondering, all his classic contradictions are still firmly in place. On the poppy political broadside "We March," he cautions men not to call women bitches, then a few tracks later breaks his own commandment in the anti-love ditty "Billy Jack Bitch." On "I Hate U," the soulful first single, he sings, "I hate you.... 'cause I love you, girl," which sums up the Princely persona in a nutshell. He loves his women and his colleagues, but he can't allow them a dominant role in his life or his work. He loves the perks of stardom but has gone out of his way to reduce his own public profile to that of a virtual unknown. Add to all this a long-standing fascination with paradox, irony and subtle parody, and you get The Gold Experience in all its contrarian glory.
Like Michael Jackson, our erstwhile Prince has plenty to scream about, but he's nowhere near as dour about it as Elvis Presley's son-in-law. Instead he tries to have as much fun as possible while following his own schizoid genius as it dances along the precarious divide between the sacred and the profane.
As usual, the attempts at rap come off as part satire and part celebration of the form. The gutter feminism of "Pussy Control" is earnestly phrased in the goofy syntax of the butt-loving Sir Mix-a-Lot, while the rabblerousing lyrics of "Now" are delivered in the twangy drawl of Arrested Development's Speech. But the most powerful revelation among this grab bag of edgy rhythms and melodies comes during the deceptively gentle "Shy." Its rhythm track recalls the imaginative noodling of "Kiss" leavened with the melodic idiosyncrasies of a Joni Mitchell ballad but leaves a more indelible impression than either. The male protagonist of "Shy" lands alone in Los Angeles and starts wandering the town in search of, well, poetry in motion.
This scenario was played out before in songs like "Head" and "Uptown," but, oh, what a difference a decade or so makes! Back in the Dirty Mind era, the main thing on a Princely woman's mind was sex. But the virginal Los Angeles riot grrrl encountered in "Shy" is more inclined to brag about the men she killed than about the men she bedded — yet one more apocalyptic sign of the times we live in.
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